Obama Presidential Center: Legal, political roadblocks

WASHINGTON – There’s a new legal and political chapter starting for the proposed Obama Presidential Center development in Jackson Park with the retirement of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and a motion filed Thursday asserting the city misled the court in a federal lawsuit.


The surprise departure of Emanuel, former President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, means the loss next May of the protective patron of the project — and the potential for the Center to become an issue in the mayoral campaign.

The Center still needs final City Council and federal approvals. City Hall is quarterbacking the federal review.

There is also an Obama Center-related federal lawsuit pending against the City and the Chicago Park District, which Emanuel controls.

Former President Barack Obama, left, shares a laugh after an introduction from Mayor Rahm Emanuel. | Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Obama Center is obvious political target

The Obama Center is a ripe target for the flock of contenders mulling a run in the February contest.

With a big field, each candidate will have to cultivate a racial, ethnic, gender, geographic or ideological base — and then add to that by organizing around an issue, such as getting more deliverables up front from the Obama Foundation.

I see locating the Obama Center in the Jackson Park as a done deal, but that does not take it off the table in a mayoral race where competitors will be trying to differentiate themselves.

Ripe, still unsettled Obama Center-related issues that could emerge in a mayor’s race include:

  • The closing of Cornell Drive through Jackson Park and the reconfiguring and closing of other roadways in and around the public park, with a price tag of about $174 million.
  • A community benefits agreement which Obama has been resisting.
  • The rent the city will get from the Obama Foundation — at present a proposed $1 a year for the private use of 19.3 acres in Jackson Park.

Looks like City Hall lawyers misled court

Did City Hall lawyers mislead a federal judge about the connections between the city, park district and the Obama Foundation?

There’s a good argument to make that they did.

In a “motion to correct the record” filed on Thursday, the plaintiffs, a group of park activists, told the court there were “material misrepresentations made to this Court by the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District that directly impact the litigation.“

The federal lawsuit, filed last May, seeks to block the construction of the Center in Jackson Park.

The case was on a judicial back burner until last month, when the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that the city and the park district were cutting down trees in Jackson Park.

The Chicago Park District was cutting the trees and digging up baseball fields south of the proposed Obama Center complex. The diamonds were being removed to make room for a new athletic field to replace a track field displaced by the Obama Center.


Cut trees in Jackson Park, across from the Hyde Park Academy High School. | Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times




















The Obama Foundation is paying the Chicago Park District up to $3.5 million to pay for that new multi-sport athletic field on what was the baseball site.

The motion said that at an Aug. 14 hearing, “the City and the Park District claimed … that the work on the track and field and in removing trees in Jackson Park was not related in any manner to the Obama Center.”

The judge bought it and put off the case until October.

Attached to the motion was a document signed between the foundation and the park district on Feb. 26, 2018 and titled, “Donation Agreement Between the Chicago Park District and the Obama Foundation.”

Foundation wants name on signs at new field

That document — I’ve read it — lays out in detail the connections, down to the insistence by the Obama Foundation for signage on the new field with the foundation name, control over the sign specs and placement and the guarantee of prominent mentions in park district publicity and press releases.

The agreement states, “The site selected for the OPC would necessitate the relocation of an existing multi-use artificial turf field with a running track.” The deal goes on to say “the Park District has designated an area within Jackson Park … as land fit for the relocation.”

On Feb. 27, the foundation flagged for reporters a Park District press release bragging about the deal, masking the payment as some kind of a gift.

Turns out, that release was misleading. Park Superintendent Mike Kelly said in a statement, “we are grateful to the Obama Foundation for their donation.” It is a payment for something taken that needed replacing. That’s not a gift.

The projects are connected. It’s fiction to say they are not.

The most recent model of the proposed Obama Presidential Center. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The most recent model of the proposed Obama Presidential Center. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

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